(This post was originally written for OnTheLeftNZ.com)
[TW for mentions of harassment, sexual abuse charges, Julian Assange and literal nazis]
Ever since I was small I had an absolutely overwhelming sense of justice. This informs and influences my world at every level, permeating through everything. It makes sense to invest myself deeply in the things I care about, and to me that means fighting for justice where I perceive it lacking. Two such things are identifying as a woman and the internet.
For identifying as a woman it’s feminism, and for the internet it’s privacy, the open web and general internet and information freedom. In my heart I feel like fighting for feminism and fighting for Internet freedom should go together like the best of friends, but in truth these are two sides of my activism that constantly clash, and leave me a mess in the middle.
The tech industry and the open internet movement have a very pervasive and ever-present misogyny problem. This dominant rhetoric makes it increasingly difficult to interact with a movement that is supposed to be about freedom, privacy and security. It gets even more horrible when prominent members within these communities are known abusers, misogynists and outright hatemongers.
Several prominent tech freedom organisations choose to align themselves with and refuse to depose these kinds of men, no matter how horrible the shit against them is. The men themselves get away with harassing and abusing women because they are seen as being ‘valuable’ to the movement. Once you’re up on a tech freedom pedestal, it seems like it’s impossible for someone to bring you down.
Take Julian Assange – Editor in Chief of Wikileaks. Wikileaks as an organisation is doing work for tech freedom and transparency in government that I’m desperate for. Their part in exposing the ever-looming TPPA is invaluable. However, I am absolutely not in any way desperate for information about an alleged rapist, or to hear from any of his apologists (if you say ‘honey trap’ to me I will kick you in your honey trap).
Assange comes across more as an embarrassment than anything else, and his presence at events creates active hostility towards rape survivors. Reminder: He lives in the Ecuadorian embassy hiding from sexual assault charges, not for anything related to being a Wikileaker. You could say that these charges have an unusual amount of weight behind them and are politically motivated, but that doesn’t stop them from being sexual assault charges. You can’t wish away the abuse here.
If anyone steps up to criticise Assange’s continued presence or airtime, there are many, many men willing to come out in active support of Assange, or at the very least wanting to ‘debate’, Sea-lioning the conversation. It makes it uncomfortable to be in tech freedom spaces and feel safe. Not only are people happy to defend Assange beyond all good reason, you are also expected to listen politely and not get annoyed about their derailing conversation. [Note, if you’re considering jumping in to try and tell a woman she is wrong to be suspicious/critical of an alleged rapist being in a position of honour, you should probably think about jumping into a skip bin instead, because you are behaving like trash.]
And this doesn’t just happen in one organisation, it’s a prominent and consistent problem throughout tech and tech freedom. The Electronic Freedom Foundation do good work combating unfair copyright laws and have a comprehensive campaign dissecting the TPPA. But they also support Weev, the man who has harassed Kathy Sierra off the internet.
Kathy Sierra, for those who didn’t get the chance to see her on twitter, is one of those fantastic minds that helps people to reinterpret the world in a way that makes better sense. She brought better ways of thinking, learning, and engaging with tech. She also took the most fantastic photographs of her Icelandic ponies. Weev is a Literal Nazi, known troll and destroyer of lives. While he did spend time in jail when he shouldn’t have, he is a trash human who delights in manipulating and gaslighting women. Despite his known status as the owner of a swastika tattoo, he still gets a pass from EFF. He just gets called ‘controversial’ before he’s mentioned. How shit a person does someone have to be before it outweighs their ‘value’ to the tech community? It seems like we haven’t reached that limit yet, and I honestly doubt we ever will.
(If you want to read in Kathy’s own words what being a victim of harassment is like, her farewell essay Trouble at Koolaid Point is the place to go to get some understanding and to get angry.)
I struggle to support EFF and their ‘free speech’ mantra. Yes, freedom of expression is important and necessary element of a free society. The right to be critical and speak out against oppressive organisations needs to be safe from prosecution and censorship. However, EFF push the freedom of speech line too far and take it to mean freedom of any speech on any platform. Recently The Verge published an article about twitter possibly trialling anti-harassment filters. EFF came out swinging against these policies, decrying censorship, or possible future use of censorship. This, at a tool that is being used to stop anti-semitic abuse. Last time I checked, hate speech and free speech were different things.
Funny how EFF stay bone silent when women are driven from platforms like twitter by harassing behaviour, but take steps to try and curb that harassment and they begin speaking about some kind of bizarre case of trickledown censorship. If you take that kind of line it means that we can’t ever do anything about neonazis or misogynists, and their victims get to continue to be victims for some imaginary ‘greater good’ reason. C’mon, people. I’m pretty sure we can have anti-harassment policies and still be firmly in support of freedom of speech. Abused and harassed people shouldn’t have to endure suffering for your ideology. If they do, your ideology is harmful and toxic.
It seems the mere mention of tools that support and encourage marginalised people to be a part of the tech industry incites a frothing flame war from the privileged. Mention a Code of Conduct or Anti Harassment policy or any kind of diverse speaker or employment strategy, and you will be met with a bunch of people angry that they don’t get to run around the net like naughty children anymore. Yes, there are consequences to your words. Yes, the internet is real life, it always has been.
It seems like these tech freedom organisations aren’t so much about liberty or freedom but are designed to support the status quo. When you support the stories of men who abuse and hate to the point of idolisation, you are doing so at the expense of the people they have hurt and will continue to hurt if unchecked. This apparently seems to be secondary to the all-important ‘freedom of information’ or ‘freedom to privacy’ or ‘freedom of speech’ that these organisations champion. As long as they have the right to say and do anything without any repercussions, they’re happy.
Unfortunately I don’t have any answers. The organisations who are doing internet freedom work are also the ones who are idolising and absolving the various hateful actions of men. It all adds up to build a pattern of anti-women rhetoric and it’s certainly one that makes me feel absolutely unwelcome. It stops feeling like it’s very much about freedom or privacy. It’s certainly not about the freedom and privacy of those who a typically and historically stripped of it (minorities, women, LGBTI or people living with disability).
This was a difficult piece to write. Not because of the subject matter, but because there is so much subject matter that it’s difficult to know where to stop. I have watched women be driven from tech and driven from their homes this year thanks to the harassment they have received, and I see organisations like EFF and Wikileaks being complicit or outright wooing their harassers. If you’re a woman in tech, you soak in this environment every day. It’s not special and over time it stops being particularly outrageous. But it never stops being disappointing, angering or horrible.
Why stay? Because despite all of this stuff. Despite the misogyny, the threats, the abuse and the torrents of shit, there’s some truly wonderful and amazing things that can be done with tech. It has such a beautiful and unlimited potential and it can and does bring so much good to people’s lives. Misogynists don’t and never will deserve to win. So I look to stay here and dig my feet in and be loud and fight while I can.